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Scène de désespoir

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo M. Urtado

Prints and Drawings
18th century

Maget Antoinette Trainee: Michel Régis

This is one of the most tragic of Sergel's series of drawings from the late 18th century. It dates from a highly creative period marked by mourning and melancholy, the artist's work being greatly influenced by the death of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1795 and of his own wife, Anna Rella, in 1796. We see here a poignant rendering of the personal crisis of an artist who used drawing to express his nightmares, fears, and obsession with suicide.

A little-known artist

A sculptor and draftsman, Johann Tobias Sergel is one of the major Northern artists of the late 18th century, and also one of the least known. Markedly classical in his sculpture, he reveals the influence of the French Naturalists in his drawing, bringing a freely expressive technique to an approach increasingly founded on narrative and caricature. He trained in Paris and Rome, meeting artists from all over Europe. On his return to Sweden he was appointed to a post at the school of art in Stockholm, rapidly becoming the favorite artist - and the friend - of King Gustav III.

Unbridled despair

In a space dominated by shadow and darkness - an empty room that looks like a stage set - two children cling to each other as they call for divine assistance. Opposite them, occupying the entire right-hand side of the picture, a muscular male figure appears to be wrapping itself in a shroud. Lying on a sofa reminiscent of a coffin, the man is cut off from the outside world, leaning backwards with his arm thrown across his eyes.

A dark prophet

In this drawing the artist gives free rein to his instincts, offering a glimpse of the irrational. The drawing is part of his Hypochondria cycle of 1795, which shows his resemblance to other artists working towards the outer limits of reason at the end of the Enlightenment. Close to Blake, Fuseli, and Goya, Sergel offers an extraordinary account of the relationship between art and madness: in his drawings, he contrasts reason, represented by dreams, with the monstrous figures of madness. Literary influences are also to be found in his work, in moods, lines of thought, and emotions to be found in Ossian, Shakespeare, Schiller, and other writers. The similarity to Fuseli and Goya emerges all the more clearly in Sergel's urge to lay bare his private world through his art.


Johann Tobias Sergel (1740-1814): Kunst um 1800, Exhibition catalogue, Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle, 1975
Johann Tobias Sergel (1740-1814): Dessins des Collections du Musée national de Stockholm, Exhibition catalogue, Paris, Centre Culturel Suédois, 1975
Sergel, Exhibition catalogue, Stockholm, Musée National, Stockholm, 1990
R. Michel, "Sergel au Louvre. Autour de l'Hypocondrie: dessins effusifs", in Revue du Louvre, February 1995, no. 1, pp. 8-12, figure 8, note 24
R. Michel, "Sergel et l'invention du sujet", in La Peinture comme Crime ou la Part Maudite de la Modernité, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 2002, pp. 70-87, 355-356 (article by Chiara Ersilio), no. 50

Technical description

  • Johann Tobias Sergel (Stockholm, 1740-Stockholm, 1814)

    Scene of Despair


  • Pen, black and sepia ink, brown wash, black chalk sketch

    H. 20.7 cm; W. 33 cm

  • Collection of the artist's family; purchased 1994

    RF 44300

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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